The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VI

This is perhaps a fitting time to give some personal description of Miss Bronte. In 1831, she was a quiet, thoughtful girl, of nearly fifteen years of age, very small in figure —“stunted” was the word she applied to herself — but as her limbs and head were in just proportion to the slight, fragile body, no word in ever so slight a degree suggestive of deformity could properly be applied to her; with soft, thick, brown hair, and peculiar eyes, of which I find it difficult to give a description, as they appeared to me in her later life. They were large and well shaped; their colour a reddish brown; but if the iris was closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature. As for the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance over-balanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and the large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the attention, and presently attracted all those whom she herself would have cared to attract. Her hands and feet were the smallest I ever saw; when one of the former was placed in mine, it was like the soft touch of a bird in the middle of my palm. The delicate long fingers had a peculiar fineness of sensation, which was one reason why all her handiwork, of whatever kind — writing, sewing, knitting — was so clear in its minuteness. She was remarkably neat in her whole personal attire; but she was dainty as to the fit of her shoes and gloves.

I can well imagine that the grave serious composure, which, when I knew her, gave her face the dignity of an old Venetian portrait, was no acquisition of later years, but dated from that early age when she found herself in the position of an elder sister to motherless children. But in a girl only just entered on her teens, such an expression would be called (to use a country phrase) “old-fashioned;” and in 1831, the period of which I now write, we must think of her as a little, set, antiquated girl, very quiet in manners, and very quaint in dress; for besides the influence exerted by her father’s ideas concerning the simplicity of attire befitting the wife and daughters of a country clergyman, her aunt, on whom the duty of dressing her nieces principally devolved, had never been in society since she left Penzance, eight or nine years before, and the Penzance fashions of that day were still dear to her heart.

In January, 1831, Charlotte was sent to school again. This time she went as a pupil to Miss W-, who lived at Roe Head, a cheerful roomy country house, standing a little apart in a field, on the right of the road from Leeds to Huddersfield. Three tiers of old- fashioned semicircular bow windows run from basement to roof; and look down upon a long green slope of pasture-land, ending in the pleasant woods of Kirklees, Sir George Armitage’s park. Although Roe Head and Haworth are not twenty miles apart, the aspect of the country is as totally dissimilar as if they enjoyed a different climate. The soft curving and heaving landscape round the former gives a stranger the idea of cheerful airiness on the heights, and of sunny warmth in the broad green valleys below. It is just such a neighbourhood as the monks loved, and traces of the old Plantagenet times are to be met with everywhere, side by side with the manufacturing interests of the West Riding of to-day. There is the park of Kirklees, full of sunny glades, speckled with black shadows of immemorial yew-trees; the grey pile of building, formerly a “House of professed Ladies;” the mouldering stone in the depth of the wood, under which Robin Hood is said to lie; close outside the park, an old stone-gabled house, now a roadside inn, but which bears the name of the “Three Nuns,” and has a pictured sign to correspond. And this quaint old inn is frequented by fustian-dressed mill-hands from the neighbouring worsted factories, which strew the high road from Leeds to Huddersfield, and form the centres round which future villages gather. Such are the contrasts of modes of living, and of times and seasons, brought before the traveller on the great roads that traverse the West Riding. In no other part of England, I fancy, are the centuries brought into such close, strange contact as in the district in which Roe Head is situated. Within six miles of Miss W-‘s house — on the left of the road, coming from Leeds — lie the remains of Howley Hall, now the property of Lord Cardigan, but formerly belonging to a branch of the Saviles. Near to it is Lady Anne’s well; “Lady Anne,” according to tradition, having been worried and eaten by wolves as she sat at the well, to which the indigo-dyed factory people from Birstall and Batley woollen mills would formerly repair on Palm Sunday, when the waters possess remarkable medicinal efficacy; and it is still believed by some that they assume a strange variety of colours at six o’clock on the morning of that day.

All round the lands held by the farmer who lives in the remains of Howley Hall are stone houses of to-day, occupied by the people who are making their living and their fortunes by the woollen mills that encroach upon and shoulder out the proprietors of the ancient halls. These are to be seen in every direction, picturesque, many-gabled, with heavy stone carvings of coats of arms for heraldic ornament; belonging to decayed families, from whose ancestral lands field after field has been shorn away, by the urgency of rich manufacturers pressing hard upon necessity.

A smoky atmosphere surrounds these old dwellings of former Yorkshire squires, and blights and blackens the ancient trees that overshadow them; cinder-paths lead up to them; the ground round about is sold for building upon; but still the neighbours, though they subsist by a different state of things, remember that their forefathers lived in agricultural dependence upon the owners of these halls; and treasure up the traditions connected with the stately households that existed centuries ago. Take Oakwell Hall, for instance. It stands in a pasture-field, about a quarter of a mile from the high road. It is but that distance from the busy whirr of the steam-engines employed in the woollen mills at Birstall; and if you walk to it from Birstall Station about meal- time, you encounter strings of mill-hands, blue with woollen dye, and cranching in hungry haste over the cinder-paths bordering the high road. Turning off from this to the right, you ascend through an old pasture-field, and enter a short by-road, called the “Bloody Lane”— a walk haunted by the ghost of a certain Captain Batt, the reprobate proprietor of an old hall close by, in the days of the Stuarts. From the “Bloody Lane,” overshadowed by trees, you come into the field in which Oakwell Hall is situated. It is known in the neighbourhood to be the place described as “Field Head,” Shirley’s residence. The enclosure in front, half court, half garden; the panelled hall, with the gallery opening into the bed-chambers running round; the barbarous peach-coloured drawing-room; the bright look-out through the garden-door upon the grassy lawns and terraces behind, where the soft-hued pigeons still love to coo and strut in the sun — are described in “Shirley.” The scenery of that fiction lies close around; the real events which suggested it took place in the immediate neighbourhood.

They show a bloody footprint in a bedchamber of Oakwell Hall, and tell a story connected with it, and with the lane by which the house is approached. Captain Batt was believed to be far away; his family was at Oakwell; when in the dusk, one winter evening, he came stalking along the lane, and through the hall, and up the stairs, into his own room, where he vanished. He had been killed in a duel in London that very same afternoon of December 9th, 1684.

The stones of the Hall formed part of the more ancient vicarage, which an ancestor of Captain Batt’s had seized in the troublous times for property which succeeded the Reformation. This Henry Batt possessed himself of houses and money without scruple; and, at last, stole the great bell of Birstall Church, for which sacrilegious theft a fine was imposed on the land, and has to be paid by the owner of the Hall to this day.

But the Oakwell property passed out of the hands of the Batts at the beginning of the last century; collateral descendants succeeded, and left this picturesque trace of their having been. In the great hall hangs a mighty pair of stag’s horns, and dependent from them a printed card, recording the fact that, on the 1st of September, 1763, there was a great hunting-match, when this stag was slain; and that fourteen gentlemen shared in the chase, and dined on the spoil in that hall, along with Fairfax Fearneley, Esq., the owner. The fourteen names are given, doubtless “mighty men of yore;” but, among them all, Sir Fletcher Norton, Attorney-General, and Major-General Birch were the only ones with which I had any association in 1855. Passing on from Oakwell there lie houses right and left, which were well known to Miss Bronte when she lived at Roe Head, as the hospitable homes of some of her schoolfellows. Lanes branch off for three or four miles to heaths and commons on the higher ground, which formed pleasant walks on holidays, and then comes the white gate into the field-path leading to Roe Head itself.

One of the bow-windowed rooms on the ground floor with the pleasant look-out I have described was the drawing-room; the other was the schoolroom. The dining-room was on one side of the door, and faced the road.

The number of pupils, during the year and a half Miss Bronte was there, ranged from seven to ten; and as they did not require the whole of the house for their accommodation, the third story was unoccupied, except by the ghostly idea of a lady, whose rustling silk gown was sometimes heard by the listeners at the foot of the second flight of stairs.

The kind motherly nature of Miss W-, and the small number of the girls, made the establishment more like a private family than a school. Moreover, she was a native of the district immediately surrounding Roe Head, as were the majority of her pupils. Most likely Charlotte Bronte, in coming from Haworth, came the greatest distance of all. “E.‘s” home was five miles away; two other dear friends (the Rose and Jessie Yorke of “Shirley”) lived still nearer; two or three came from Huddersfield; one or two from Leeds.

I shall now quote from a valuable letter which I have received from “Mary,” one of these early friends; distinct and graphic in expression, as becomes a cherished associate of Charlotte Bronte’s. The time referred to is her first appearance at Roe Head, on January 19th, 1831.

“I first saw her coming out of a covered cart, in very old- fashioned clothes, and looking very cold and miserable. She was coming to school at Miss W-‘s. When she appeared in the schoolroom, her dress was changed, but just as old. She looked a little old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch a sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent. When a book was given her, she dropped her head over it till her nose nearly touched it, and when she was told to hold her head up, up went the book after it, still close to her nose, so that it was not possible to help laughing.”

This was the first impression she made upon one of those whose dear and valued friend she was to become in after-life. Another of the girls recalls her first sight of Charlotte, on the day she came, standing by the schoolroom window, looking out on the snowy landscape, and crying, while all the rest were at play. “E.” was younger than she, and her tender heart was touched by the apparently desolate condition in which she found the oddly- dressed, odd-looking little girl that winter morning, as “sick for home she stood in tears,” in a new strange place, among new strange people. Any over-demonstrative kindness would have scared the wild little maiden from Haworth; but “E.” (who is shadowed forth in the Caroline Helstone of “Shirley”) managed to win confidence, and was allowed to give sympathy.

To quote again from “Mary’s” letter:-

“We thought her very ignorant, for she had never learnt grammar at all, and very little geography.”

This account of her partial ignorance is confirmed by her other school-fellows. But Miss W— was a lady of remarkable intelligence and of delicate tender sympathy. She gave a proof of this in her first treatment of Charlotte. The little girl was well-read, but not well-grounded. Miss W— took her aside and told her she was afraid that she must place her in the second class for some time till she could overtake the girls of her own age in the knowledge of grammar, &c.; but poor Charlotte received this announcement with so sad a fit of crying, that Miss W-‘s kind heart was softened, and she wisely perceived that, with such a girl, it would be better to place her in the first class, and allow her to make up by private study in those branches where she was deficient.

“She would confound us by knowing things that were out of our range altogether. She was acquainted with most of the short pieces of poetry that we had to learn by heart; would tell us the authors, the poems they were taken from, and sometimes repeat a page or two, and tell us the plot. She had a habit of writing in italics (printing characters), and said she had learnt it by writing in their magazine. They brought out a ‘magazine’ once a month, and wished it to look as like print as possible. She told us a tale out of it. No one wrote in it, and no one read it, but herself, her brother, and two sisters. She promised to show me some of these magazines, but retracted it afterwards, and would never be persuaded to do so. In our play hours she sate, or stood still, with a book, if possible. Some of us once urged her to be on our side in a game at ball. She said she had never played, and could not play. We made her try, but soon found that she could not see the ball, so we put her out. She took all our proceedings with pliable indifference, and always seemed to need a previous resolution to say ‘No’ to anything. She used to go and stand under the trees in the play-ground, and say it was pleasanter. She endeavoured to explain this, pointing out the shadows, the peeps of sky, &c. We understood but little of it. She said that at Cowan Bridge she used to stand in the burn, on a stone, to watch the water flow by. I told her she should have gone fishing; she said she never wanted. She always showed physical feebleness in everything. She ate no animal food at school. It was about this time I told her she was very ugly. Some years afterwards, I told her I thought I had been very impertinent. She replied, ‘You did me a great deal of good, Polly, so don’t repent of it.’ She used to draw much better, and more quickly, than anything we had seen before, and knew much about celebrated pictures and painters. Whenever an opportunity offered of examining a picture or cut of any kind, she went over it piecemeal, with her eyes close to the paper, looking so long that we used to ask her ‘what she saw in it.’ She could always see plenty, and explained it very well. She made poetry and drawing at least exceedingly interesting to me; and then I got the habit, which I have yet, of referring mentally to her opinion on all matters of that kind, along with many more, resolving to describe such and such things to her, until I start at the recollection that I never shall.”

To feel the full force of this last sentence — to show how steady and vivid was the impression which Miss Bronte made on those fitted to appreciate her — I must mention that the writer of this letter, dated January 18th, 1856, in which she thus speaks of constantly referring to Charlotte’s opinion has never seen her for eleven years, nearly all of which have been passed among strange scenes, in a new continent, at the antipodes.

“We used to be furious politicians, as one could hardly help being in 1832. She knew the names of the two ministries; the one that resigned, and the one that succeeded and passed the Reform Bill. She worshipped the Duke of Wellington, but said that Sir Robert Peel was not to be trusted; he did not act from principle like the rest, but from expediency. I, being of the furious radical party, told her ‘how could any of them trust one another; they were all of them rascals!’ Then she would launch out into praises of the Duke of Wellington, referring to his actions; which I could not contradict, as I knew nothing about him. She said she had taken interest in politics ever since she was five years old. She did not get her opinions from her father — that is, not directly — but from the papers, &c., he preferred.”

In illustration of the truth of this, I may give an extract from a letter to her brother, written from Roe Head, May 17th, 1832:- “Lately I had begun to think that I had lost all the interest which I used formerly to take in politics; but the extreme pleasure I felt at the news of the Reform Bill’s being thrown out by the House of Lords, and of the expulsion, or resignation of Earl Grey, &c., convinced me that I have not as yet lost all my penchant for politics. I am extremely glad that aunt has consented to take in ‘Fraser’s Magazine;’ for, though I know from your description of its general contents it will be rather uninteresting when compared with ‘Blackwood,’ still it will be better than remaining the whole year without being able to obtain a sight of any periodical whatever; and such would assuredly be our case, as, in the little wild moorland village where we reside, there would be no possibility of borrowing a work of that description from a circulating library. I hope with you that the present delightful weather may contribute to the perfect restoration of our dear papa’s health; and that it may give aunt pleasant reminiscences of the salubrious climate of her native place,” &c.

To return to “Mary’s” letter.

“She used to speak of her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died at Cowan Bridge. I used to believe them to have been wonders of talent and kindness. She told me, early one morning, that she had just been dreaming; she had been told that she was wanted in the drawing-room, and it was Maria and Elizabeth. I was eager for her to go on, and when she said there was no more, I said, ‘but go on! MAKE IT OUT! I know you can.’ She said she would not; she wished she had not dreamed, for it did not go on nicely, they were changed; they had forgotten what they used to care for. They were very fashionably dressed, and began criticising the room, &c.

“This habit of ‘making out’ interests for themselves that most children get who have none in actual life, was very strong in her. The whole family used to ‘make out’ histories, and invent characters and events. I told her sometimes they were like growing potatoes in a cellar. She said, sadly, ‘Yes! I know we are!’

“Some one at school said she ‘was always talking about clever people; Johnson, Sheridan, &c.’ She said, ‘Now you don’t know the meaning of CLEVER, Sheridan might be clever; yes, Sheridan was clever — scamps often are; but Johnson hadn’t a spark of cleverality in him.’ No one appreciated the opinion; they made some trivial remark about ‘CLEVERALITY,’ and she said no more.

“This is the epitome of her life. At our house she had just as little chance of a patient hearing, for though not school-girlish, we were more intolerant. We had a rage for practicality, and laughed all poetry to scorn. Neither she nor we had any idea but that our opinions were the opinions of all the SENSIBLE people in the world, and we used to astonish each other at every sentence . . . Charlotte, at school, had no plan of life beyond what circumstances made for her. She knew that she must provide for herself, and chose her trade; at least chose to begin it once. Her idea of self-improvement ruled her even at school. It was to cultivate her tastes. She always said there was enough of hard practicality and USEFUL knowledge forced on us by necessity, and that the thing most needed was to soften and refine our minds. She picked up every scrap of information concerning painting, sculpture, poetry, music, &c., as if it were gold.”

What I have heard of her school days from other sources, confirms the accuracy of the details in this remarkable letter. She was an indefatigable student: constantly reading and learning; with a strong conviction of the necessity and value of education, very unusual in a girl of fifteen. She never lost a moment of time, and seemed almost to grudge the necessary leisure for relaxation and play-hours, which might be partly accounted for by the awkwardness in all games occasioned by her shortness of sight. Yet, in spite of these unsociable habits, she was a great favourite with her schoolfellows. She was always ready to try and do what they wished, though not sorry when they called her awkward, and left her out of their sports. Then, at night, she was an invaluable story-teller, frightening them almost out of their wits as they lay in bed. On one occasion the effect was such that she was led to scream out aloud, and Miss W-, coming up stairs, found that one of the listeners had been seized with violent palpitations, in consequence of the excitement produced by Charlotte’s story.

Her indefatigable craving for knowledge tempted Miss W— on into setting her longer and longer tasks of reading for examination; and towards the end of the year and a half that she remained as a pupil at Roe Head, she received her first bad mark for an imperfect lesson. She had had a great quantity of Blair’s “Lectures on Belles Lettres” to read; and she could not answer some of the questions upon it; Charlotte Bronte had a bad mark. Miss W— was sorry, and regretted that she had set Charlotte so long a task. Charlotte cried bitterly. But her school-fellows were more than sorry — they were indignant. They declared that the infliction of ever so slight a punishment on Charlotte Bronte was unjust — for who had tried to do her duty like her? — and testified their feeling in a variety of ways, until Miss W-, who was in reality only too willing to pass over her good pupil’s first fault, withdrew the bad mark; and the girls all returned to their allegiance except “Mary,” who took her own way during the week or two that remained of the half-year, choosing to consider that Miss W-, in giving Charlotte Bronte so long a task, had forfeited her claim to obedience of the school regulations.

The number of pupils was so small that the attendance to certain subjects at particular hours, common in larger schools, was not rigidly enforced. When the girls were ready with their lessons, they came to Miss W— to say them. She had a remarkable knack of making them feel interested in whatever they had to learn. They set to their studies, not as to tasks or duties to be got through, but with a healthy desire and thirst for knowledge, of which she had managed to make them perceive the relishing savour. They did not leave off reading and learning as soon as the compulsory pressure of school was taken away. They had been taught to think, to analyse, to reject, to appreciate. Charlotte Bronte was happy in the choice made for her of the second school to which she was sent. There was a robust freedom in the out-of-doors life of her companions. They played at merry games in the fields round the house: on Saturday half-holidays they went long scrambling walks down mysterious shady lanes, then climbing the uplands, and thus gaining extensive views over the country, about which so much had to be told, both of its past and present history.

Miss W— must have had in great perfection the French art, “conter,” to judge from her pupil’s recollections of the tales she related during these long walks, of this old house, or that new mill, and of the states of society consequent on the changes involved by the suggestive dates of either building. She remembered the times when watchers or wakeners in the night heard the distant word of command, and the measured tramp of thousands of sad desperate men receiving a surreptitious military training, in preparation for some great day which they saw in their visions, when right should struggle with might and come off victorious: when the people of England, represented by the workers of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Nottinghamshire, should make their voice heard in a terrible slogan, since their true and pitiful complaints could find no hearing in parliament. We forget, now-a- days, so rapid have been the changes for the better, how cruel was the condition of numbers of labourers at the close of the great Peninsular war. The half-ludicrous nature of some of their grievances has lingered on in tradition; the real intensity of their sufferings has become forgotten. They were maddened and desperate; and the country, in the opinion of many, seemed to be on the verge of a precipice, from which it was only saved by the prompt and resolute decision of a few in authority. Miss W— spoke of those times; of the mysterious nightly drillings; of thousands on lonely moors; of the muttered threats of individuals too closely pressed upon by necessity to be prudent; of the overt acts, in which the burning of Cartwright’s mill took a prominent place; and these things sank deep into the mind of one, at least, among her hearers.

Mr. Cartwright was the owner of a factory called Rawfolds, in Liversedge, not beyond the distance of a walk from Roe Head. He had dared to employ machinery for the dressing of woollen cloth, which was an unpopular measure in 1812, when many other circumstances conspired to make the condition of the mill-hands unbearable from the pressure of starvation and misery. Mr. Cartwright was a very remarkable man, having, as I have been told, some foreign blood in him, the traces of which were very apparent in his tall figure, dark eyes and complexion, and singular, though gentlemanly bearing. At any rate he had been much abroad, and spoke French well, of itself a suspicious circumstance to the bigoted nationality of those days. Altogether he was an unpopular man, even before he took the last step of employing shears, instead of hands, to dress his wool. He was quite aware of his unpopularity, and of the probable consequences. He had his mill prepared for an assault. He took up his lodgings in it; and the doors were strongly barricaded at night. On every step of the stairs there was placed a roller, spiked with barbed points all round, so as to impede the ascent of the rioters, if they succeeded in forcing the doors.

On the night of Saturday the 11th of April, 1812, the assault was made. Some hundreds of starving cloth-dressers assembled in the very field near Kirklees that sloped down from the house which Miss W— afterwards inhabited, and were armed by their leaders with pistols, hatchets, and bludgeons, many of which had been extorted by the nightly bands that prowled about the country, from such inhabitants of lonely houses as had provided themselves with these means of self-defence. The silent sullen multitude marched in the dead of that spring-night to Rawfolds, and giving tongue with a great shout, roused Mr. Cartwright up to the knowledge that the long-expected attack was come. He was within walls, it is true; but against the fury of hundreds he had only four of his own workmen and five soldiers to assist him. These ten men, however, managed to keep up such a vigorous and well-directed fire of musketry that they defeated all the desperate attempts of the multitude outside to break down the doors, and force a way into the mill; and, after a conflict of twenty minutes, during which two of the assailants were killed and several wounded, they withdrew in confusion, leaving Mr. Cartwright master of the field, but so dizzy and exhausted, now the peril was past, that he forgot the nature of his defences, and injured his leg rather seriously by one of the spiked rollers, in attempting to go up his own staircase. His dwelling was near the factory. Some of the rioters vowed that, if he did not give in, they would leave this, and go to his house, and murder his wife and children. This was a terrible threat, for he had been obliged to leave his family with only one or two soldiers to defend them. Mrs. Cartwright knew what they had threatened; and on that dreadful night, hearing, as she thought, steps approaching, she snatched up her two infant children, and put them in a basket up the great chimney, common in old-fashioned Yorkshire houses. One of the two children who had been thus stowed away used to point out with pride, after she had grown up to woman’s estate, the marks of musket shot, and the traces of gunpowder on the walls of her father’s mill. He was the first that had offered any resistance to the progress of the “Luddites,” who had become by this time so numerous as almost to assume the character of an insurrectionary army. Mr. Cartwright’s conduct was so much admired by the neighbouring mill-owners that they entered into a subscription for his benefit which amounted in the end to 3,000L.

Not much more than a fortnight after this attack on Rawfolds, another manufacturer who employed the obnoxious machinery was shot down in broad daylight, as he was passing over Crossland Moor, which was skirted by a small plantation in which the murderers lay hidden. The readers of “Shirley” will recognise these circumstances, which were related to Miss Bronte years after they occurred, but on the very spots where they took place, and by persons who remembered full well those terrible times of insecurity to life and property on the one hand, and of bitter starvation and blind ignorant despair on the other.

Mr. Bronte himself had been living amongst these very people in 1812, as he was then clergyman at Hartshead, not three miles from Rawfolds; and, as I have mentioned, it was in these perilous times that he began his custom of carrying a loaded pistol continually about with him. For not only his Tory politics, but his love and regard for the authority of the law, made him despise the cowardice of the surrounding magistrates, who, in their dread of the Luddites, refused to interfere so as to prevent the destruction of property. The clergy of the district were the bravest men by far.

There was a Mr. Roberson of Heald’s Hall, a friend of Mr. Bronte’s who has left a deep impression of himself on the public mind. He lived near Heckmondwike, a large, straggling, dirty village, not two miles from Roe Head. It was principally inhabited by blanket weavers, who worked in their own cottages; and Heald’s Hall is the largest house in the village, of which Mr. Roberson was the vicar. At his own cost, he built a handsome church at Liversedge, on a hill opposite the one on which his house stood, which was the first attempt in the West Riding to meet the wants of the overgrown population, and made many personal sacrifices for his opinions, both religious and political, which were of the true old-fashioned Tory stamp. He hated everything which he fancied had a tendency towards anarchy. He was loyal in every fibre to Church and King; and would have proudly laid down his life, any day, for what he believed to be right and true. But he was a man of an imperial will, and by it he bore down opposition, till tradition represents him as having something grimly demoniac about him. He was intimate with Cartwright, and aware of the attack likely to be made on his mill; accordingly, it is said, he armed himself and his household, and was prepared to come to the rescue, in the event of a signal being given that aid was needed. Thus far is likely enough. Mr. Roberson had plenty of war-like spirit in him, man of peace though he was.

But, in consequence of his having taken the unpopular side, exaggerations of his character linger as truth in the minds of the people; and a fabulous story is told of his forbidding any one to give water to the wounded Luddites, left in the mill-yard, when he rode in the next morning to congratulate his friend Cartwright on his successful defence. Moreover, this stern, fearless clergyman had the soldiers that were sent to defend the neighbourhood billeted at his house; and this deeply displeased the work-people, who were to be intimidated by the red-coats. Although not a magistrate, he spared no pains to track out the Luddites concerned in the assassination I have mentioned; and was so successful in his acute unflinching energy, that it was believed he had been supernaturally aided; and the country people, stealing into the fields surrounding Heald’s Hall on dusky winter evenings, years after this time, declared that through the windows they saw Parson Roberson dancing, in a strange red light, with black demons all whirling and eddying round him. He kept a large boys’ school; and made himself both respected and dreaded by his pupils. He added a grim kind of humour to his strength of will; and the former quality suggested to his fancy strange out-of-the-way kinds of punishment for any refractory pupils: for instance, he made them stand on one leg in a corner of the schoolroom, holding a heavy book in each hand; and once, when a boy had run away home, he followed him on horseback, reclaimed him from his parents, and, tying him by a rope to the stirrup of his saddle, made him run alongside of his horse for the many miles they had to traverse before reaching Heald’s Hall.

One other illustration of his character may be given. He discovered that his servant Betty had “a follower;” and, watching his time till Richard was found in the kitchen, he ordered him into the dining-room, where the pupils were all assembled. He then questioned Richard whether he had come after Betty; and on his confessing the truth, Mr. Roberson gave the word, “Off with him, lads, to the pump!” The poor lover was dragged to the court- yard, and the pump set to play upon him; and, between every drenching, the question was put to him, “Will you promise not to come after Betty again?” For a long time Richard bravely refused to give in; when “Pump again, lads!” was the order. But, at last, the poor soaked “follower” was forced to yield, and renounce his Betty.

The Yorkshire character of Mr. Roberson would be incomplete if I did not mention his fondness for horses. He lived to be a very old man, dying some time nearer to 1840 than 1830; and even after he was eighty years of age, he took great delight in breaking refractory steeds; if necessary, he would sit motionless on their backs for half-an-hour or more to bring them to. There is a story current that once, in a passion, he shot his wife’s favourite horse, and buried it near a quarry, where the ground, some years after, miraculously opened and displayed the skeleton; but the real fact is, that it was an act of humanity to put a poor old horse out of misery; and that, to spare it pain, he shot it with his own hands, and buried it where, the ground sinking afterwards by the working of a coal-pit, the bones came to light. The traditional colouring shows the animus with which his memory is regarded by one set of people. By another, the neighbouring clergy, who remember him riding, in his old age, down the hill on which his house stood, upon his strong white horse — his bearing proud and dignified, his shovel hat bent over and shadowing his keen eagle eyes — going to his Sunday duty like a faithful soldier that dies in harness — who can appreciate his loyalty to conscience, his sacrifices to duty, and his stand by his religion- -his memory is venerated. In his extreme old age, a rubric meeting was held, at which his clerical brethren gladly subscribed to present him with a testimonial of their deep respect and regard.

This is a specimen of the strong character not seldom manifested by the Yorkshire clergy of the Established Church. Mr. Roberson was a friend of Charlotte Bronte’s father; lived within a couple of miles of Roe Head while she was at school there; and was deeply engaged in transactions, the memory of which was yet recent when she heard of them, and of the part which he had had in them.

I may now say a little on the character of the Dissenting population immediately surrounding Roe Head; for the “Tory and clergyman’s daughter,” “taking interest in politics ever since she was five years old,” and holding frequent discussions with such of the girls as were Dissenters and Radicals, was sure to have made herself as much acquainted as she could with the condition of those to whom she was opposed in opinion.

The bulk of the population were Dissenters, principally Independents. In the village of Heckmondwike, at one end of which Roe Head is situated, there were two large chapels belonging to that denomination, and one to the Methodists, all of which were well filled two or three times on a Sunday, besides having various prayer-meetings, fully attended, on week-days. The inhabitants were a chapel-going people, very critical about the doctrine of their sermons, tyrannical to their ministers, and violent Radicals in politics. A friend, well acquainted with the place when Charlotte Bronte was at school, has described some events which occurred then among them:-

“A scene, which took place at the Lower Chapel at Heckmondwike, will give you some idea of the people at that time. When a newly- married couple made their appearance at chapel, it was the custom to sing the Wedding Anthem, just after the last prayer, and as the congregation was quitting the chapel. The band of singers who performed this ceremony expected to have money given them, and often passed the following night in drinking; at least, so said the minister of the place; and he determined to put an end to this custom. In this he was supported by many members of the chapel and congregation; but so strong was the democratic element, that he met with the most violent opposition, and was often insulted when he went into the street. A bride was expected to make her first appearance, and the minister told the singers not to perform the anthem. On their declaring they would, he had the large pew which they usually occupied locked; they broke it open: from the pulpit he told the congregation that, instead of their singing a hymn, he would read a chapter; hardly had he uttered the first word, before up rose the singers, headed by a tall, fierce-looking weaver, who gave out a hymn, and all sang it at the very top of their voices, aided by those of their friends who were in the chapel. Those who disapproved of the conduct of the singers, and sided with the minister, remained seated till the hymn was finished. Then he gave out the chapter again, read it, and preached. He was just about to conclude with prayer, when up started the singers and screamed forth another hymn. These disgraceful scenes were continued for many weeks, and so violent was the feeling, that the different parties could hardly keep from blows as they came through the chapel-yard. The minister, at last, left the place, and along with him went many of the most temperate and respectable part of the congregation, and the singers remained triumphant.

“I believe that there was such a violent contest respecting the choice of a pastor, about this time, in the Upper Chapel at Heckmondwike, that the Riot Act had to be read at a church- meeting.”

Certainly, the SOI-DISANT Christians who forcibly ejected Mr. Redhead at Haworth, ten or twelve years before, held a very heathen brotherhood with the SOI-DISANT Christians of Heckmondwike; though the one set might be called members of the Church of England and the other Dissenters.

The letter from which I have taken the above extract relates throughout to the immediate neighbourhood of the place where Charlotte Bronte spent her school-days, and describes things as they existed at that very time. The writer says — “Having been accustomed to the respectful manners of the lower orders in the agricultural districts, I was at first, much disgusted and somewhat alarmed at the great freedom displayed by the working classes of Heckmondwike and Gomersall to those in a station above them. The term ‘lass,’ was as freely applied to any young lady, as the word ‘wench’ is in Lancashire. The extremely untidy appearance of the villagers shocked me not a little, though I must do the housewives the justice to say that the cottages themselves were not dirty, and had an air of rough plenty about them (except when trade was bad), that I had not been accustomed to see in the farming districts. The heap of coals on one side of the house- door, and the brewing tubs on the other, and the frequent perfume of malt and hops as you walked along, proved that fire and ‘home- brewed’ were to be found at almost every man’s hearth. Nor was hospitality, one of the main virtues of Yorkshire, wanting. Oat- cake, cheese, and beer were freely pressed upon the visitor.

“There used to be a yearly festival, half-religious, half social, held at Heckmondwike, called ‘The Lecture.’ I fancy it had come down from the times of the Nonconformists. A sermon was preached by some stranger at the Lower Chapel, on a week-day evening, and the next day, two sermons in succession were delivered at the Upper Chapel. Of course, the service was a very long one, and as the time was June, and the weather often hot, it used to be regarded by myself and my companions as no pleasurable way of passing the morning. The rest of the day was spent in social enjoyment; great numbers of strangers flocked to the place; booths were erected for the sale of toys and gingerbread (a sort of ‘Holy Fair’); and the cottages, having had a little extra paint and white-washing, assumed quite a holiday look.

“The village of Gomersall” (where Charlotte Bronte’s friend “Mary” lived with her family), “which was a much prettier place than Heckmondwike, contained a strange-looking cottage, built of rough unhewn stones, many of them projecting considerably, with uncouth heads and grinning faces carved upon them; and upon a stone above the door was cut, in large letters, ‘SPITE HALL.’ It was erected by a man in the village, opposite to the house of his enemy, who had just finished for himself a good house, commanding a beautiful view down the valley, which this hideous building quite shut out.”

Fearless — because this people were quite familiar to all of them — amidst such a population, lived and walked the gentle Miss W-‘s eight or nine pupils. She herself was born and bred among this rough, strong, fierce set, and knew the depth of goodness and loyalty that lay beneath their wild manners and insubordinate ways. And the girls talked of the little world around them, as if it were the only world that was; and had their opinions and their parties, and their fierce discussions like their elders — possibly, their betters. And among them, beloved and respected by all, laughed at occasionally by a few, but always to her face — lived, for a year and a half, the plain, short-sighted, oddly-dressed, studious little girl they called Charlotte Bronte.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/bronte/v1chap6.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17